Why Some Low-Rated TV Shows Keep Getting Renewed

Media blitzes and social engagement help endangered series avoid cancellation

Judgment day has arrived. As the broadcast networks locked in their schedules ahead of this week's upfronts, they decided the fate of their shows that were still on the ratings bubble—including The Mindy Project on Fox and ABC's Forever, Marvel's Agent Carter and American Crime.

As is the case every year, a couple of these bubble series eked out a renewal (American Crime, Agent Carter), while others with similar ratings were canceled (Forever). And with more outlets than ever—especially streaming services—desperate for original content to attract new viewers, even canceled series with engaged fan bases are finding new life after getting the ax. That's what happened with the low-rated The Mindy Project, which appears to be headed to Hulu after Fox passed on a fourth season.

That's because networks take more than just ratings into account when it comes to picking up, or saving, a show. After all, a number of series with cult followings—including Parks and Recreation, Community and Fringe—improbably managed to stave off cancelation for years.

Sometimes, a tinier-but-loyal audience can be even more attractive to ad buyers than a higher-rated show's viewers. "While ratings certainly matter, if the ratings are smaller but they capture 95 percent of that audience that I'm looking for, then that's the right group for me," said Dan Cohn, client director of investment at Initiative. "As long as it has the target audience we're going after, and they're watching the show week in and week out, that's what we care about."

That engagement was also a key reason that Hulu, which already has exclusive SVOD rights to The Mindy Project, immediately began talks about a two-year pickup after Fox canceled the show on May 6, according to sources. Why all the fuss over a show that averaged just a 1.1 rating in adults 18-49 and a mere 2.3 million total viewers? While advertisers like The Mindy Project's upscale (though small) female audience, its resiliency ultimately comes down to creator and star Mindy Kaling. Even though Dana Walden, Fox Television Group co-chairman and co-CEO, ultimately passed on Season 4, she marveled earlier this year of Kaling: "She's willing to do anything to support that show."

That includes embracing product integrations like Target, Microsoft Lumia, Toyota and Mazda, which "can pay for beautiful sets and location trips," Kaling said.

But more importantly, she keeps fans engaged by promoting the show—incessantly but hilariously—to her nearly 4 million Twitter and 1.4 million Instagram followers. "Promoting the show is just bragging about your favorite thing, so I always want to be talking about it," she said. "Social media's good for that." (Bonus: Shows with exceptional social engagement, like The Mindy Project, are more attractive to advertisers.)

The fan outreach that helps Kaling save her show each year also kept perennial bubble series Parks and Recreation on the air for seven seasons, thanks in large part to a nonstop media blitz from star Amy Poehler and castmates. "We were constantly hearing internally from NBC publicity, 'Your cast is so great; they do everything we want,'" said Parks and Recreation co-creator Mike Schur. "But that's what you do when you have something you love and want it to keep going. You work as hard as you can."

Sometimes, the network does a ratings-starved show's heavy lifting for it, as was the case with The CW's Reign. Despite its minuscule 0.4 rating in adults 18-49, the series unexpectedly received a third season order in January, when the surging network opted to renew its entire fall slate en masse as a show of network strength.

After all, as The CW president Mark Pedowitz noted, some shows are simply too promising to be canceled prematurely. "We believe that the shows are quality," said Pedowitz, "and good or bad, I'd rather go to the bank with quality."